Even the cheesiest, most cloyingly overearnest romance movies lack the pathos of the pop-up notifications you get when you cancel an online subscription. “If you leave us now, you’ll take away the biggest part of us” is a message I’d expect to receive from a spouse upon being served divorce papers. It’s actually Spotify’s farewell message, spelled out by the song titles included in the playlist it shows after users cancel their subscription. The billion-dollar company isn’t ready to say goodbye.
“Where did we go wrong?” Hulu asks in the mandatory seven-step questionnaire that appears when you try to end your subscription. Earlier versions of its cancellation process embedded an autoplaying Simpsons supercut, edited so that Lisa, the show’s youngest speaking character, says, “Please don’t do this … Are you really, really sure?” Until last year, any users who tried to deactivate Facebook were met with photos of their friends above the caption “[Friend’s name] will miss you.”
Some sites employ other forms of guilt as a means of maintaining loyalty. When given the choice of subscribing to the Women’s Health newsletter, a user who’s not interested does not click “No,” but rather “No thanks, I don’t need to work out.” At the popular food blog Delish, to decline the newsletter offer, users must click “No thanks, I’ll have microwave dinner tonight.”
This is just one of many tactics retailers use to manipulate consumers. Dark patterns are the often unseen web-design choices that trick users into handing over more time, money, or attention than they realize. A team of Princeton researchers is cataloging these deceptive techniques, using data pulled from 11,000 shopping sites, to identify 15 ways sites subtly game our cognition to control us.
The research builds on the work of Harry Brignull, a London-based cognitive scientist who coined the term dark pattern in 2010, and the authors Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, whose work on “nudges” explores how default options influence behavior. Just over one in 10 websites contain at least one type of dark pattern, the Princeton research finds. The more popular the site, the more likely it has at least one.
The most common dark pattern is scarcity bias: Put an item in your cart, and you’ll be served a message claiming “Only eight left in stock!” thereby urging you to buy immediately before the item is gone. But by analyzing webpages’ scripts and plug-ins, the researchers found that in many cases, these numbers are either generated randomly or set to decrease according to a schedule.
This theater of numbers is also key to the second most popular dark pattern: the flash sale. Major fashion retailers often tease a sudden, temporary drop in prices, crowning a page with a banner reading “Sale ends soon!” and a countdown timer. The “urgency” creates anxiety and uncertainty, pushing us to take advantage of lower prices immediately. But again, researchers found instances when the sales continued even after the timer had expired.
It’s not just the numbers that are fake—the shoppers are, too. The third most frequent pattern, “social proof,” has to do with the pop-up messages displayed on the sidebar of some sites: “90 people have viewed this item!”; “Joanne from Florida just saved on a sweater!” The tactic harnesses the power of both bandwagon thinking (This is popular, so I should get it) and scarcity (If I don’t get it, someone else will). But after analyzing the sites, researchers again found that the pop-ups come from random number generators and selections of stock messages. You don’t have to buy the sweater if you don’t want to. Joanne isn’t real; she’s just a few lines of code, and code doesn’t wear sweaters.
I’m certainly not immune to dark patterns. My personal weakness is limited to free trials—to Audible, to Starz, to Amazon Prime. I’ve been burned enough to know better, but I’m still sure every time that I will remember to delete my account before the cutoff date and avoid being charged. Essentially, I have more confidence in my future self than in my present self. That assurance that we can outwit the dark pattern is, naturally, a dark pattern of its own.
“People have excessive faith in their own memories or their own ability to come through and do something in the future,” says Don Moore, the Lorraine Tyson Mitchell Chair in Leadership and Communication at UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business, who is not involved in the research. Moore studies how confidence influences economic behavior. “Consumers are often a little bit too reluctant to contest their own failings, limitations, or errors. And so we aren’t sufficiently anxious about the potential for manipulation. It’s common for people to say, ‘Oh, I meant to do that,’ when in fact they were manipulated.”
This overconfidence can actually make us more vulnerable to exploitation, because we underestimate the power of dark patterns. Returning to the example of the free trial, companies are, of course, prepared for all our future selves. The cancellation process is often far more complicated than registration, a dark pattern called obstruction. The few times I’ve remembered to end a trial, I was confronted with a lengthy multistep process, and crawled away, defeated, until I could summon the strength to spend minutes or hours wrestling with an unsympathetic user interface. Princeton’s researchers termed this the “hidden subscription” dark pattern, but it’s earned a more evocative nickname in UX circles: the roach motel. Easy to get in, nearly impossible to get out.
For his part, Moore cautions against dismissing influential design wholesale. Nudges are inescapable, but some can be beneficial. Citing Sunstein and Thaler, Moore argues that the nudge can be pro-social. Automatic voter registration for 18-year-olds, for example, is a nudge. As is automatic organ donation, or even just putting fruit in front of junk food in your refrigerator.
Pro-social nudges are having a moment right now. A helpful browser extension, Icebox, freezes webpages in the checkout stage; users can return to them after a certain amount of time has passed, if they choose to return at all. A New Yorker piece on the attention economy recommends StayFocusd, which limits time spent on any site. I use Block Site and IFTTT’s reminder system, which immediately schedules reminders a given number of days after you sign up for a free trial.
Ultimately, no space, Moore argues, is entirely absent of nudges. Search results are ranked for convenience. Cafeterias have to order their offerings somehow, and that order reveals something about what’s most convenient for them—and maybe something about how they prefer customers to act. Countering the effects of dark patterns requires more than awareness. People want to feel as though they are in control of their choices, even as they admit to being tricked.
Colin Gray is an assistant professor at Purdue University in the department of computer-graphics technology. When he surveys the public about online behavior, he says, respondents routinely blame themselves for falling prey to dark patterns.
“We ran a survey study and then followed up with a number of interviews both in the United States and in China,” he says. “And we found very similar sorts of patterns in both cultural contexts, where manipulation is part of these users’ everyday life but they don’t feel like they can do a lot about it.”
Gray has recently begun studying Reddit groups that call out exploitative design, from anti-homeless “hostile architecture” to autoplaying ads and deceptive retail spaces. In one example, a sign declares that oranges are “on sale” for only 99 cents. Remove the sign, however, and the original price is revealed: 99 cents. The “sale” is a fiction to get people to buy more. The project is still in its early days, but Gray is optimistic that in studying how people recognize, respond to, and communicate with dark patterns, we may become more aware of the endless coaxing of life online while also maintaining an internal locus of control.
“What we’re finding is really complex strands of ethical reasoning,” he says. “But I don’t see that that sort of awareness is traveling down to the general public.”
What would change if it did? Absent dark patterns, online shopping is still a tangled knot of vanity, necessity, bias, and distraction. The best we can hope for is a higher degree of awareness of our actions online and what’s influencing us. It’s unlikely that good nudges will totally overpower bad ones anytime soon, but there seems to be some progress. In the 10 years since Brignull coined the term dark patterns, new papers pointing them out in different contexts have popped up regularly; lawmakers are now taking notice, too. If we can’t opt out of influences on our behavior, maybe we can at least opt in to better influences.